Dr. Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, spoke last September at the Theology for All Conference in the UK (HT: Between Two Worlds). One of his lectures was entitled "Contemporary Challenges to Theology and Church Life." In this lecture he spoke, among other things, of the problems of consumerism and the inability to properly implement church discipline. He stated, "We go to a church because of how it meets our needs. We don’t go there to place ourselves under the authority of the local session [He is presbyterian] or under the authority of the man preaching the Word." He also stated, "The crisis in discipline tracks to consumerism."
Professor Trueman is certainly correct, and I would like to elaborate briefly on what he said. Here is the problem in a nutshell: When people pick and choose churches based on personal preferences, and there are multitudes of churches to choose from, church discipline loses its teeth. Anyone who disagrees with any particular church for whatever reason may simply move on to the next church. This inability to enforce church discipline in turn affects the gospel itself. You see, the whole point of putting someone out of a church is to say that the church no longer affirms that the person in question is a genuine believer. The person is someone who needs to be evangelized. But when this person may simply join a different church of a different stripe at will, then the collective judgment of the disciplining church is rendered practically impotent.
Because of this scenario, Dr. Trueman said, "We face a serious collapse in moral accountability in our churches." He went on to say, "Our structures militate against us solving that problem." These are very sobering statements with which I agree completely. However, the most sobering statement he made was this: "I see no way forward."
I take this as a challenge for the glory of God and the advancement of the cause of Christ. We must find a way forward. It must be a way that eschews the facile, superficial unity of doctrinal indifferentism. It must be a way that puts the local church front and center, not para-church groups or organizations. It must be a way that is relentlessly biblical, Spirit-empowered and full of love. Only God can produce this. We must pray and work so that he will.
We should not be naive about the challenges of this kind of undertaking, nor should we be utopian in our expectations. Even a cursory reading of church history should disabuse us of such notions. There will not be perfection in the body of Christ until the great wedding of Christ and his bride. Nevertheless, this should not stop us from working toward that end. In fact, as with personal sanctification, achieving that end is never divorced from working toward that end (e.g. Phil 2:12-13).
To be honest, I have to say with Dr. Trueman that at this point I see no way forward. But I suspect that Moses saw no way forward at the Red Sea, either. We still serve the same God Moses did, and by his grace we know that he will build his church. Let's be a part of that.